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In the Shia-dominated southern provinces and the ones that border Iran, the political dynamics have been different. The region is peaceful but subject to terrorist attacks by Sunnis. Photo: Reuters
In the Shia-dominated southern provinces and the ones that border Iran, the political dynamics have been different. The region is peaceful but subject to terrorist attacks by Sunnis. Photo: Reuters

A storm in Iraq

Iraq needs weapons, equipment and materiel but can do without external 'goodwill'

From a ragtag group of bloodthirsty terrorists to an effective armed group that is giving the Iraqi army a run for its money, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has come a long way. It is also closer than ever to form a new state in the region by redrawing the borders of Iraq and Syria.

Is the Middle East bracing for another round of bloodshed and instability?

Two factors have led the region away from peace in the last two to three years. Unless these are seen together, it is difficult to understand what is happening in Iraq.

Weak and partisan state

When the US handed over power to an Iraqi government on 28 June 2004, it reopened a can of worms. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had a centralized state that was effective in holding the country together. All that changed under interim prime minister Ayad Allawi. The priorities of governments since then have been to favour one community over the other in the sharing of political spoils, offices, patronage and jobs. Iraq’s security has taken a backseat.

The evidence for this is substantial. One the one hand, lethal terrorist attacks-, largely the handiwork of Sunni extremists, have continued unabated. On the other hand, the country is virtually divided into three zones, each doing what it pleases without any check from Baghdad. In the north, the Kurds are virtually independent. Since the start of the first Gulf War in 1990, a no fly zone for Iraqi Air Force and exclusion of the Iraqi army ensured that Kurds were handed over autonomy on a plate. There has been no looking back.

In the east bordering Syria and Saudi Arabia, Sunni tribes continue to be restless. The first, and original, rebellion against US occupation after Hussein was dislodged started here. It was only after a political deal was reached with these tribes that some normalcy returned to Iraq. This region is in trouble again and the ISIS, a Sunni group, has substantial influence here.

In the Shia-dominated southern provinces and the ones that border Iran, the political dynamics have been different. The region is peaceful but subject to terrorist attacks by Sunnis.

With this three-fold division, a poorly trained army and a partisan government, Iraq was courting trouble.

Under prime minister Nouri al Maliki, the sectarian division of the country has increased further. Maliki, a Shia, is a politician who is adept at using sectarian identities to further his political goals. In India, Maliki’s tactics would be called divide and rule. In Iraq he is allegedly undoing the decades of injustice under Hussein to Shias.

All the top administrative jobs in Baghdad, influential political positions and important commands in the army are held by Shias. In a country where these appointments are made on merit and some system of fair play, one community dominating the other would not matter. But in Iraq, the sudden reversal of fortunes has made the situation worse. Until the other day, the Sunnis, much smaller in number than the Shias, were the masters of Iraq. Under the US occupation and after that, Shias are the new masters almost to the exclusion of the Sunnis.

This is the witch’s brew that has enabled the rise of the ISIS.

Neighbourhood frenimies

The one factor that has made ISIS a force is the absence of a superior power that can keep order in the region. The civil war in Syria between the Bashar al Assad regime and its opponents has created a confused political situation: there are Syrian nationalists, Al Qaeda affiliates and a large number of groups each with its own agenda. Assad has found it useful to pit one group against the other for survival. The US under Barack Obama has calculated that it will gain nothing and certainly lose much more if it intervenes in Syria.

In Syria, the political equation is a mirror image of what prevails in Iraq. In Damascus, it is a Shia-friendly regime that has lorded over a Sunni majority. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, the have been fears of a spill-over from Syria to Iraq. In the early days of the conflict in 2011, there was a substantial flow of uprooted people escaping violence across the region. Since then, a different sort of flow has begun—terrorists finding safe havens across the border.

ISIS has exploited Iraq’s internal divisions, the anarchy in Syria and a brand of pan-Islamism that has never gone out of fashion in the Middle East to do what it wants. It may sound far fetched in this time that a caliphate could be created anywhere in the world. But the presence of a religious-political idea and the political conditions that allow experiments towards its creation are all present in Iraq and Syria.

Two conditions will make the situation worse in the weeks and months ahead. One, Iranian involvement to shore up the government in Iraq will be seen as a blatantly sectarian step in the Sunni world (Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example). If this happens, it will give more legitimacy to ISIS.

Two, any American intervention at this stage will be seen as pro-Shia. The complexion of governments in Damascus and Baghdad is decidedly Shia. Iran is a Shia country. ISIS and the groups opposed to these regimes are Sunni. If the US intervenes militarily, the impression that it has sided with the Shias will be hard to dispel. Again this will only help ISIS.

If Iraq has to have a chance of surviving as a unified state, it has to wage its own battles without external intervention. It needs weapons, equipment and materiel for sure, but can do without external “goodwill".

Global Roaming runs every Tuesday to take stock of international events and trends from a political and economic perspective.

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